We shouldn’t be so smug about how rundown the Gare du Nord is — dirty, badly planned, with some of the most benighted souls in Paris gathered around its splendid 1864 triumphal arch. King’s Cross, and neighbouring St Pancras, were once just as bad — worse, even — in the 1980s.
My school run took me past the stations then and it was a vision of despair: soot-blackened train sheds and warehouses, many of them closed down, open only at weekends to bleary-eyed ravers. Prostitutes plied their trade, even at 8.30 a.m. as I was ferried to my Regent’s Park prep school. Our car turned right into Goods Way at the spot where Sir Allan Green, the then director of public prosecutions, was cautioned by police for talking to prostitutes in 1991.
This was the King’s Cross of the 1986 film Mona Lisa, starring Bob Hoskins as a driver for a high-class prostitute. In fact, King’s Cross’s starring role as a centre of crime goes all the way back to The Ladykillers in 1955, when Alec Guinness pulls off a security van robbery at the station.
Railway stations, however grand their architecture, have often been crime hotspots ever since they were built, with easy pickings in the form of puzzled tourists, along with all-night shopping — and vice — on tap.
And so the modern transformation of King’s Cross is quite staggering. I live a mile away, and have to remind myself every time I bike through the vast, 67-acre Great Northern goods yard, north of the station, quite how rundown it once was.
In the bad old days, I never would have biked through the yard — well, I couldn’t; it was closed off. But I certainly wouldn’t have biked along the Regent’s Canal, which bisects the site — not after my cousin was robbed and had his bike, and himself, thrown into the fetid water in the 1980s.
Now, even late into the evening, the whole place is thronged with people. Not prostitutes or muggers, but the right mix of residents, visitors and students at the new premises of Central Saint Martins.
Since 2000, the developer Argent has masterminded the £3 billion transformation of the area. Studio flats in the new Gasholders development cost from £810,000. Three-bedroom flats go for £2 million. These are astronomic prices compared with the ones in bad old King’s Cross. In 2000, you could have bought a three-bedroom flat round here for £200,000.
Today it is beyond belief that British Rail wanted to demolish all these extraordinary buildings in the 1980s. Still, as late as that, the moronic 1960s belief that new life couldn’t be poured into old buildings, persisted. A similar band of idiots wanted to demolish Covent Garden when Eliza Doolittle’s fellow flower girls left in 1974. Only four years ago, SAVE Britain’s Heritage managed to stop a hideous spaceship of a modern building being dumped in the middle of the Victorian masterpiece of Smithfield Market.
King’s Cross, and its surrounding ancillary buildings, were built at the height of the Victorian railway age, from 1852 onwards, when British confidence was at a swaggering high.
So of course those triumphant, vast hangars could be happily handed over to new use. The Great Northern goods yard is so generally named because it accommodated goods of all kind in the 19th century — and now it can accommodate any 21st century goods. Lewis Cubitt, the man who built King’s Cross station, also built the Granary; where once there was grain, there are now those arts students. The East Handyside Canopy, constructed as a shed to cover people unloading potatoes, now covers diners and drinkers.
The four Victorian gasometers — like four colosseums, looming over my school run — have been brilliantly repurposed, wrapped around housing and a lovely little circular park. And, this autumn, the Coal Drops Yard — where coal was dropped from the railway lines into carts — will be reborn with shops and cafés.
I remember being astounded at how much space there was in the development when it first opened up six years ago — because no one could go there in the old days. Now it’s opened up, London suddenly clicks into place. A great black hole between the Euston Road and Camden has miraculously sprung to life, as if from nowhere, with a complete panoply of dazzling Victorian architecture. You can traverse east to west via water and greenery, not the grim concrete jungle you might have expected of this industrial corner of north London.
And everywhere there are the literally civilising influence of cities: the cives — the citizens. The great Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), the American architecture critic, saved Greenwich Village, New York, from the wicked planners through campaigning, and through her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities . She pointed out how urban motorways, underpasses, elevated highways and skyscrapers kill cities by dividing them up and creating dead areas — where there are no people.
How wonderful of King’s Cross to reverse the process: to people a city.
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Viking).